Well-being for all in Education: A lofty goal?

Well-being for all in Education: A lofty goal?

Patrice Palmer profile picture

Patrice Palmer (Canada) evaluates how well-being policies are being implemented in education


I recently gave a keynote speech at the TESL Atlantic conference in Canada on this topic. In the last year, I’ve noticed more ELT conferences with a well-being theme so it appears that interest in well-being in English Language Teaching is growing which is good news. Despite this trend, few schools or educational institutions are making well-being for all (teachers, students, and all school staff) a priority. For many governments across the globe, there has been an attempt to make well-being a focus, with little progress according to positive psychology expert, Boniwell (2011).

Research related to well-being is exploding but there has been an ongoing debate about a precise definition (and a definition for teacher well-being as well). The World Health Organization (2004) defines well-being as the presence of ‘a state in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community’. In more simple terms, well-being is about feeling positively about life, full of energy and good health (Centres for DC, 2018).

Student Well-being

Sadly, mental health issues in children and youth have been increasing globally. During the pandemic, these rates have further increased. Students who are not well will struggle academically and as Vella-Broderick & Chin (2021) suggest, well-being is important in its own right and a prerequisite for learning. Furthermore, there is a positive association between learner well-being and higher academic achievement (Suldo et al., 2011). Teachers want their students to be well but often do not have the resources, support or training to do this vital work.

Teacher Well-being

There has been significant research conducted related to stress in the teaching profession. Teacher stress is higher and well-being lower than in the general population, and stressed teachers are less effective in the classroom (Bentea, 2017; Sanetti, 2021). More attention needs to be paid to the impact of stress on teachers, their ability to function and perform well, and sustain their careers. Teacher well-being is important because without well teachers, Greenberg (2021) argues that “we will not have healthy schools and successful students.”  It’s imperative that schools and learning organizations address teacher well-being and implement initiatives that encourage and support well-being.

The Well-being Connection:  Students and Teachers

Teacher and student well-being is closely linked. Simply put, the mental health and well-being of teachers impacts the mental health and well-being of students (Greif Green, 2021). In addition, there is interesting research from the University of British Columbia (UBC, 2016) that suggests a link between teacher burnout and student stress. The notion of stress contagion indicates that teachers can pass on stress to students. The key take-away is that learning happens best when teachers and their students are well, but as teachers flourish, relationships with students, colleagues and the larger community become more positive (Cherkowski & Walker, 2018). Therefore, there are many reasons why student and teacher well-being may be a lofty goal but a worthy one.

Why Well-being in Schools?

Here are some reasons why it makes sense for schools to adopt well-being for all as a goal:

Schools are important for student well-being and happiness (UNESCO, 2016)

Promoting and sustaining flourishing in schools is integral to societies because schools…are the locations for well-being (Cherkowski & Walker, 2018)

Schools that most effectively promote good mental health and well-being adopt a whole-school approach (Weare, 2006)

Teachers can model a healthy lifestyle, mindsets and habits (Cambridge Assessment, 2021)

Can we teach well-being?

The good news is yes! A recent study conducted by Yarden (2021) found that even short courses that taught evidence-based positive psychology interventions to enhance well-being improved students’ mental health. The interventions include activities like mindfulness, cultivating gratitude, savouring and self-compassion. Given the challenges of the past 16 months, learning about well-being and applying actions to improve it in students, teachers and all school staff is vital.

How do we teach well-being?

One approach is using a positive education model based on the science of positive psychology or human flourishing. Positive education has grown rapidly and evidence shows an effective and meaningful impact on students and teachers within a school setting, and other individuals within the educational communities using this model (Galazka, 2020). Some of the countries using a positive education model are Australia, Bhutan, China, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Peru, Mexico, UAE, the USA, and Canada. Positive education focuses on character strengths, growth, resilience, and optimism, as well as a goal of both well-being and academic mastery (White & Kern, 2018). I have posted some resources below to get you started.


CorStone – http:// corstone.org/girls-first-bihar-india

ELT and Happiness – http://www.eltandhappiness.com/

International Positive Education Network – https://www.ipen-network.com

Positive Psychology – https://positivepsychology.com/positive-education-happy-students/

Community of Positive Psychology for English Language Teachers  –  https://coppelt.org/

Growing Strong Minds – https://growingstrongminds.com/

MacIntyre, D., Gregersen, T., Mercer, S. (2016).  Positive Psychology in SLA. Multilingual Matters

VIA Character Strengths – https://www.viacharacter.org/



Clarke, T. (2021). Education brief: Learner Well-being.  Cambridge Assessment, International Education. https://www.cambridgeinternational.org/Images/612684-learner-wellbeing.pdf

Cherkowski, S. & Walker, K. (2018). Teacher wellbeing. noticing, nurturing, sustaining and flourishing in schools. Burlington, ON: Word & Deed Publishing.

Galazka, A. (2020). Positive Education and Well-being in the ELT Classroom. https://www.hltmag.co.uk/apr20/positive-education

Greif Green, E. in Cardoza, K. (2021). ‘We Need To Be Nurtured, Too’: Many Teachers Say They’re Reaching A Breaking Point. https://www.npr.org/2021/04/19/988211478/we-need-to-be-nurtured-too-many-teachers-say-theyre-reaching-a-breaking-point

Suldo, S. & Thalji, A. & Ferron, J. (2011). Longitudinal academic outcomes predicted by early adolescents’ subjective well-being, psychopathology, and mental health status yielded from a dual factor model. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 6. 17-30

Weare, K. (2006). Developing the Emotionally Literate School, London: Sage

White, M. A., & Kern, M. L., (2018). Positive education: Learning and teaching for wellbeing and academic mastery. International Journal of Wellbeing, 8(1), 1-17

Yaden, D., Claydon, J., Bathgate, M., Platt, B, Santos, L. (2021) Teaching well-being at scale: An intervention study. PLoS ONE 16(4): e0249193


Teaching during Challenging Times: A Canadian Perspective

Patrice Palmer profile pictureTeaching During Challenging Times: A Canadian Perspective

Patrice Palmer


When I was asked to write this blog post, I thought about what the word challenge means. The Cambridge dictionary definition is:

challenge (n): the situation of being faced with – something that needs great mental or physical effort in order to be done successfully and therefore tests a person’s ability

When I reflect on living and teaching during a global pandemic, challenge is definitely the right word to use. I know for me, the last year has required great mental and physical effort to be active, well, and function at my pre-pandemic level. It hasn’t always been easy and I’m not alone.

Challenges teachers face

In preparation for this post, I asked a few colleagues to tell me what their greatest challenges were for them in the last year. Here’s a short list:

    • lack of curriculum guidelines
    • finding balance and letting go of trying to do everything
    • keeping the online students engaged
    • helping students who struggle to maintain structure

It’s no surprise that we perceive “challenges” in different ways, and that the last year has been full of them in our personal and professional lives.

Depending on where you teach in Canada, you may be in class, teaching online, or in a hybrid model. I currently teach at a college and in March 2020, faculty had a week to get all course content online, including final exams. It was incredibly stressful to pivot so quickly; however, teachers being the professionals they are, made it possible.

Teaching into the abyss

More than a year later, I have yet to step foot in a classroom, and I believe it will not happen in 2021 since we are in a third lockdown in my province. I do like teaching online and haven’t really missed having a physical classroom but I do miss personal interaction with students. Because I teach adults, cameras are optional so I usually teach to black squares. A few brave souls will keep their cameras on. My son, who is a college student, told me one of his professors begged students (even a few) to keep their cameras on since she found it hard to teach into the abyss.

One challenge for me has been changing how I teach. In-person methods do not easily translate in Zoom which I quickly learned. In the first week or two, I was speeding through my Powerpoint slides. It wasn’t until a brave student unmuted her microphone and asked me to slow down, did I realize what I was doing. Because I couldn’t see students taking notes, and then looking up when they were done, I went through content too fast. Now I make sure to stop sharing my screen every few slides to check in, ask questions, and hopefully engage students enough to contribute a comment or ask a question.

Although I’m getting used to not seeing students on Zoom, I do find the silence difficult.  I’ve taken advantage of webinars and articles that provide tips for increasing student engagement. “Zoom fatigue” is described as the tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with using virtual platforms. It’s real for both teachers and students who are feeling weary. Occasionally, when I’ve finished my online class early, students have reacted with joy and quickly logged out.

The importance of social presence in online learning

Dr. Robin Kay is a Dean at a Canadian University and has written about the importance of social presence in online learning. It is defined as “the ability of participants to identify with the community, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment and develop interpersonal relationships by way of projecting their personalities”. I agree that having a strong social presence is important so I have built in discussion posts and weekly break out rooms. Kay suggests that maximizing social connection among and with students can occur with quick feedback, responding to emails, short videos to the class, and establishing a virtual presence. I’m definitely adding more discussion posts, and a break out room activity in every lecture. Students tell me over and over how much they enjoy break out rooms.

I have also been learning to use new tech tools, like Slido and Wheel of Names  to provide some novelty. Our brains can quickly become tuned out to the mundane so I try to shake things up a bit.

Teacher and student self-care is essential

For the most part, I feel I’ve mastered the challenges of teaching online. However, as a teacher self-care advocate, it’s important for me to be aware of my mental health. Daily walks are a must no matter how cold it is here in the winter. Frequent calls to friends lifts my mood. Cooking with my son and watching NBA basketball is an activity that makes me happy. Reading fiction as an escape has been pure bliss. As we enter the second year of the global pandemic, I’m more conscious than ever about my own health and well-being, and making sure students are supported, encouraged and treated with compassion and kindness.

I do believe that at some point, life will return to normal but in the meantime, it’s important to remain hopeful. This quote by Dr. Charles Snyder, a psychologist and renowned hope researcher, is a good message during challenging times.

A rainbow is a prism that sends shards of multicolored light in various directions. It lifts our spirits and makes us think of what is possible. Hope is the same – a personal rainbow of the mind.


Cambridge Dictionary.

Kay, R. (2020). Thriving in an Online World: A Guide for Higher Education Instructors. Faculty of Education Ontario Tech University, Canada.

Lee, J. (2020). A Neuropsychological Exploration of Zoom Fatigue.

Snyder, C. (2002). Hope Theory.

Miss Brown

Patrice Palmer profile pictureMiss Brown

by Patrice Palmer


A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

Henry Adams


One of the icebreakers that I use with my TESL trainees is to ask them to think about their favourite teacher and explain why they choose this person. I like to do this because I want teachers-in-training to reflect on who they might want to model and also think about the everlasting qualities of this memorable educator. I believe that every one of us has had a teacher who has made an impact or a difference in our lives. Years later, their influence lives on. Who is that teacher for you? My most memorable teacher was Miss Brown.

In 1966-67, I was a Grade 4 student at Bedson Elementary School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Miss Brown was kind and good-natured, and she saw the potential in each and every student. She never yelled at us (despite teaching 34 rambunctious 8-year olds all day in high heels) but rather treated us as people. I remember how every Friday afternoon Miss Brown would read aloud from a Hardy Boys book, leaving us hanging for more until the following week. We also spent a lot of time completing “levelled reading packs” which consisted of a story of a famous person. One particular story that I still remember was about George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery. Imagine reading that in 1966! After reading on our own, we would answer questions which she would check. If we answered most of the questions correctly, we were able to select a reading from the next level. This pushed me to develop my reading skills without realizing I was doing that. Miss Brown instilled a love of reading which I still hold deeply today.

Miss Brown was quite extraordinary for her time, because every summer she and her mom (who she lived with) travelled to an exotic country. This was quite unusual at the time, given that air travel in 1966 would have been costly and very time-consuming. On special occasions, Miss Brown would show us photographs and artefacts from around the world. I remember seeing photos of the Sphinx in Egypt, thinking that one day I would be standing in the same spot where she stood taking that same photo. Years later, when I walked on the Egyptian tarmac, I touched the ground and said a thank you to Miss Brown. I don’t think I ever would have travelled to Egypt if it weren’t for Miss Brown’s own adventure there in the 1960’s. As teachers, we should never forget the power of images in our own classrooms.

One of the most profound photographs that I saw in my Grade 4 class was that of a shiny gold Buddha. Miss Brown had travelled to Japan, and I remember thinking that the Buddha was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I had so many questions about the statue. What did it mean? Why had I never seen anything like it before? Years later, I would read everything I could about Buddhism and see some of the most fascinating statues in Thailand and Myanmar. Miss Brown contributed to my curiosity about countries and cultures by “bringing the world” into our classroom.

So, if Miss Brown were a teacher in 2018, what would she do differently? I think she would still treat her students like people and see the potential in everyone. She would encourage us to grow as young people and instill an excitement in learning, whether through reading or research. I believe she would have even more stamps in her passport and share what she had learned about the world with us. Her own passion for learning would be evident and contagious.

When I think about how Miss Brown influenced me as an educator, I would say that it is by seeing the potential in every student and encouraging them to dream big. Her legacy has helped me think about how teachers can inspire students by exploring the world (either in person or through movies or other media), thinking about the beauty of diversity on the planet, and through love of learning anything, not just English!

Who was your “Miss Brown”? How did this teacher impact who you are as a teacher? As the Adams quote in the beginning of this post suggests, we never can tell where our influence stops.



Motivating Students Using Character Strengths

Patrice Palmer profile pictureMotivating Students Using Character Strengths

by Patrice Palmer.


A few years ago, while conducting research for a course I was developing as a freelancer, I discovered the science of positive psychology (if you don’t know anything about it, watch this great 5-minute whiteboard video). Traditional psychology typically looks at what is wrong with us, while positive psychology looks at what is right with us. Our strengths are as important as weaknesses. I was fascinated by this evidence-based science and pondered how I could apply it to second language acquisition.

I feel that one of the most interesting areas in positive psychology is exploring character strengths (some examples include honesty, zest, love of learning, perseverance, gratitude, and curiosity). Approximately 55 scientists reviewed the best thinking on virtues and positive human qualities in the areas of theology, psychology, and philosophy from the past 2,500 years over a three-year period. The result was a compilation of 24 character strengths which are universal across religions, cultures, nations, and belief systems. I liked the idea of focusing on students’ strengths instead of their weaknesses, because after seven years as an EAP instructor I felt that with red pen in hand, my job was to point out errors or deficits in writing. And students are much more than their writing skills! I decided to use the character strengths survey with my students in hopes to motivate them more but had no idea how big the impact of taking a 10-minute survey would be.

Below I’d like to list the steps my class and I took in using character strengths in an EAP class.

  1. Pre-writing activity. First we watched the video The Science of Strengths in class. Students discussed the content in small groups exploring such questions as, “How are character strengths like super-powers? What do you think your top strengths might be?”
  2. The survey.  The character strengths survey takes about 10 minutes and is available at http://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey. I set up a free teacher account on the website with a designated link for the survey for each class. In this way I could get the survey results emailed to me and I could also verify that the students did actually complete the survey.
  3. Face-to-face interviews. I set up a schedule with 10-minute time slots to talk to students about their top five character strengths and how they use them specifically as a student. I created a form for this task which they were required to complete and bring to the interview. Reflecting on the survey results before the interview and being asked questions during the interview was part of a pre-writing exercise for their writing assignment.
  4. Writing assignment. Students were required to write a 5-paragraph essay about their top three character strengths. Although the top five are considered Signature Strengths (and the ones that are most easily and often used), choosing just three made it easier for the essay format.

Small Changes, Big Results

Meeting forty students in one class requires time that we often do not have but I wanted to be able to personally connect with each student. During the interviews, I noticed two things. First, when I asked each student to tell me about their top five character strengths and how they demonstrate them as a student, they immediately came to life! Normally in my EAP classes students are very quiet, but the same learners beamed and spoke with a sense of excitement as they talked about their strengths.

The second change was in me. When I looked out at the sea of student faces after the interviews, I saw their strengths instead of thinking about their writing skills. For example, I had one student who constantly asked questions. When I learned that two of his top five strengths were curiosity and leadership, it made complete sense. In other words, instead of seeing him as annoying I now perceived him as inquisitive and asking questions that others might be afraid to ask. Another student, who had hounded me via email for two weeks about making up a missed assignment, had fairness as his top strength. He felt that my denial of his request was unfair and that made sense to me, so we talked one day after class and I changed my mind about the make-up test.

Normally I can’t say that I enjoy reading and grading forty essays, but I was actually excited about reading that particular pile of papers. Students had learned what they were good at and what was positive about themselves. Hopefully this knowledge and awareness will have a lasting effect on their success as learners and out in the labour force.

I’d like to share with you a few comments from the essays written by my students.

”In conclusion, identifying and building on your own unique character strengths can help make a better and happier person. I agree with the top three results of my VIA Character Strengths Survey (love, fairness, and kindness). Although I suppose I was aware of these traits, the survey made me stop and think about my character.  In the future I will use these character strengths to bring out the best in me and help me to achieve the goals I set for my life. After all, it’s what inside a person that counts.”

“The three character strengths of curiosity, love of learning, and leadership have aided me by providing me access to work opportunities, helping my performance in school, seek out learning opportunities, and increase the quality of my interpersonal relationships at school.”

“My top three character strengths are Love, Prudence and Teamwork. I was not surprised to discover what they turned out to be. I would not even have changed the order in which they were given. It was reassuring to know what I thought I already knew.”

Why Use Character Strengths?

There are many reasons why it could be a good idea, but I think most importantly students should learn about their strengths and reflect on how they can use them (or how they have been using them in the past) to achieve results inside and outside of school. We know that our language learners can feel frustrated in their ability to learn English, so focusing on strengths could give them confidence. It is important to remember that all character strengths have downsides if overused, so that should be discussed as well. For example, my own top character strength is Appreciation for Beauty and Excellence but its overuse results in perfectionism! Another example would be the overuse of curiosity – too much of it may mean that the person never gets anything done because they are so distracted by learning about everything around them.

Overall, using our character strengths makes us feel happier, more confident, increases our energy, lessens our stress, helps us to achieve goals and grow as individuals. What teacher doesn’t want that for his/her students!


Conference Presenter: Yes, Maybe, or Never?

Patrice Palmer profile picture

Conference Presenter: Yes, Maybe, or Never?
by Patrice Palmer.


When I sat on my local TESL Board of Directors, we spent months planning our annual spring conference. Most years, the call for proposals yielded a very low rate of return. In fact, most years board members had to personally reach out to teachers to encourage or even persuade them to present. In this post I would like to explore the reasons why that happens.  

My good teacher friend Joan Bartel and I share the view that presenting at conferences is not only fun but also quite addictive. So far, I have presented at least 30 times in the last 20 years both locally and internationally. We often see each other at conferences including last year’s TESOL Convention in Seattle. Over the dinner one evening, we shared how our presentations went and talked about the thrill of presenting at an international conference. However, obviously many teachers do not share our excitement.  

Was I always such a conference-keener? Of course not! I can clearly remember my first conference presentation. I was working in a Teaching and Learning Centre in Hong Kong and I was told (not asked) that I would be presenting at a conference for local language teachers. My topic was how to teach English using a new virtual 360° panoramic website, which was brand-new technology back in 2005. Not only was I nervous about actually speaking to a large group, but also worried about demonstrating the technology itself operating live. While I waited patiently to be called to the podium, my mouth got dry and I was sweating! I remember the papers shaking in my hands… And before I knew it, my 30-minute presentation was over and I was sitting in audience with the conference participants. Even though I was terrified and anxious, I am very glad that I was forced to present. Without this prompting, I am not sure that I would have had the confidence to submit a conference proposal on my own. The best thing about that first presentation is that every time after that, it just got a bit easier because I knew I could do it.   

Do I still get presenter jitters? YES! As an example, moments before my TESOL Convention presentation in 2016, I was still reviewing my Power Point slides right up to my curtain call, but it was all worth the butterflies in the end. I knew that I had a good grasp of the content, but I just wanted it to go well.   

I certainly understand one’s apprehension in presenting, but the low rate of presenter proposal submissions for last year’s local TESL conference still perplexed me. I wanted to find out the reasons behind it so I designed a simple 2-question survey and sent it to my blog followers.  

My first question was, “If you haven’t presented at a conference, is this something that you would like to do in the future?”  Surprisingly, more than 46% of teachers responded with a YES. Approximately the same number replied “Maybe”, and only 8% said “Never”, which is much lower than I expected. 

My second question was, “If you are not interested in presenting at conferences, what is the number one reason?” Only 10% of the teachers said that they are too busy, which is understandable given our profession. Unfortunately, 20% of the respondents stated that they are too afraid to present in front of colleagues. Again, this is understandable since glossophobia (or the fear of public speaking) is the number one fear for many people. About 35% of teachers said that they are not interested because they would not receive any money (it is expensive to attend conferences). What was most surprising to me is that the same number of teachers said that they do not feel like they have the skills or expertise to present at a conference. Personally, I believe that all teachers have the skills (many of us teach presentation skills to our students) and we certainly have expertise from our own classroom experiences that could be shared to help other teachers.   

For this year’s TESL Ontario Conference in Canada, I invited a former colleague to co-present. Drew had always wanted to present but said that he didn’t have the confidence to do it alone. The day after our presentation, I received an email from him: “That was fun. Thanks for asking me. It was a great experience”.  

If you are an experienced conference presenter, think about inviting a newbie to co-present with you. I would also recommend that you start with a small, local conference first. Panel presentations are also a good way to get started and for you to gain experience and confidence.   

What else do you think we could do together as a teacher community to help other teachers feel more confident and believe that they have something worthwhile to share at TESOL conferences? If you are an ESL/EFL teacher who has never presented at a conference, please write in the comments below why you made this choice. If you know of any resources to help teachers feel more confident about presenting, please share. If you are a blogger, think about writing a post to encourage teachers to put themselves out there on the conference stage. Then, together we can see how teachers could be supported in this exciting professional development opportunity.